Punggol East sends signal of zero tolerance to PAP in by-election

Lee Li Lian

Hail the victorious Ah Lian

Huat ah! Congratulations to Lee Li Lian and what a victory this is for the Workers’ Party in the Punggol East by-election.

Chua Mui Hoong calls this a tipping point in the political landscape and a harbinger of more to come, but some may argue that the tipping point is already reached at General Election 2011 with WP’s victory in Aljunied GRC. But she is right that Punggol East has a demographic profile of the future, and the ruling People’s Action Party relies heavily on support from the baby boomer generation that can only diminish in coming years.

Indeed, this by-election result is one that should worry PAP, even if the media is keen to put this down to the so-called ‘by-election effect’. While in Aljunied the Workers’ Party fielded its star team, in Punggol East they managed to secure a convincing win with a candidate of lower profile in Ms Lee.

The victory is even sweeter when viewed in the context of a David vs Goliath battle of the likeable girl-next-door coming up against a candidate of impeccable credentials backed by PAP heavyweights. The people are no longer swayed by successful surgeons, lawyers, government high-fliers or army generals from the PAP factory line. No amount of career success can make up for the dedication to serve and a true appreciation beyond lip service of the people’s concerns. For Dr Koh Poh Koon, the lessons will be to go easy on the sob stories and contrived kinship with Punggol, and realise that to proclaim his success as a product of meritocracy is as good as saying that he deserves his riches because he is more capable or works harder than all the Singaporeans who struggle to make ends meet.

Without taking the sheen off WP’s win, the Punggol East by-election result cannot be viewed in any other way than a total disaster for PAP. This is the worst case scenario it could possibly fear — that even with the presence of two other candidates creating a dilution of opposition votes, Ms Lee still managed to secured an absolute majority of over 50%. It would have been a lot less embarrassing if she had won in a close race with Dr Koh with, say, 49% to 47% where both candidates get less than half the votes. But as it turned out, the dilution was minimal and the mandate given to Ms Lee is clear.

What now for the Workers’ Party? In Aljunied, they garnered a 10.81% vote swing handing them the victory. In Punggol East, Ms Lee did even better with a 13.5% increase. The tide had not only turned, but is growing ever stronger. WP can now look realistically at continuing to grow its franchise by winning nearby wards it previously contested, assuming electoral boundaries don’t change. This includes Joo Chiat SMC, East Coast GRC and even Seng Kang West SMC where they achieved 48.99%, 45.17% and 41.92% respectively. All of these look increasingly possible now.

Also, the Workers’ Party has to stop selling itself merely as a check-and-balance on PAP and start presenting itself as a viable alternative government. Whether or not it actually believes this will happen any time soon, it must at least act like it will be ready. If not, it may suffer a reverse of the ‘by-election effect’ in future elections; that is, people who had voted for it may start voting for PAP for fear that WP could really end up forming the government.

Having said all these, WP must not get complacent. Given the criticism the party has attracted for not being vocal enough in parliament, the Punggol East victory will be seen as more of a rejection of PAP than voters giving WP credit for a job well done. It cannot simply ride on the discontent with the ruling party, especially with other opposition parties hot on its heels. Also, while WP may now have seven elected Members of Parliament, they are concentrated in just three constituencies with several of its party heavyweights in the same GRC team. It could just as easily lose these wards as it could win more in the next GE if its performance is not satisfactory.

Voters have now given a deserving ‘Punggol slap’ to PAP and sent a signal of zero tolerance for its mismanagement in the country’s affairs. Despite an ongoing national conversation and some policy changes since GE2011, it is clear that the people are no longer contented with just tweaks to the current system. How many can, or are prepared to, wait when they tell us that property prices will stabilise in a few years, that congestion will alleviate after more train lines are built, or that wages will rise when productivity measures finally bed in?

We need solutions now, or at least a clear acknowledge from the government that the problems are real and things have gone seriously wrong. PAP will do well with a major rethink of its ideology and we-know-best attitude before this political tide turns into an insurmountable torrent by the next general election.